When it comes to entertainment, people enjoy seeing bad guys get their punishment more than seeing them be forgiven, a new study reveals.
But even though they don’t enjoy the forgiveness stories as much, people do find these narratives more meaningful and thought-provoking than ones in which the bad guys receive their just deserts.
“We like stories in which the wrongdoers are punished and when they get more punishment than they deserve, we find it fun,” said Matthew Grizzard, lead author of the study and assistant professor of communication at The Ohio State University.
“Still, people appreciate stories of forgiveness the most, even if they don’t find them to be quite as fun.”
The study was published online recently in the journal Communication Research and will appear in a future print edition.
The study involved 184 college students who read short narratives that they were told were plots to possible television episodes.
The students read 15 narratives: one-third in which the villain was treated positively by the victim; one-third in which the villain received a just punishment; and one-third in which the villain was punished over and beyond what would have been a suitable penalty for the crime.
For example, one story involved a person stealing $50 from a co-worker. Participants read one of three possible endings.
In one scenario, the victim bought coffee for the thief (under-retribution/forgiveness); in another, the victim stole a $50 bottle of whiskey from the thief (equitable retribution); and in the third version the victim both stole his money back and downloaded porn onto the thief’s work computer (over-retribution).
Immediately after reading each scenario, the participants were asked if they liked or disliked the narrative.
More people liked the equitable retribution stories than those that involved under- or over-retribution, Grizzard said.
The researchers also timed how long it took the readers to click the like or dislike button on the computer after reading each of the narratives.
They found that readers took less time to respond to stories with equitable retribution than it did for them to respond to stories with under- or over-retribution.
“People have a gut-level response as to how they think people should be punished for wrongdoing and when a narrative delivers what they expect, they often respond more quickly,” Grizzard said.
When the punishment did not fit the crime, the participants took a bit longer to respond to the story with a like or dislike.
But why they took longer appeared to be different for stories with under-retribution versus stories with over-retribution, Grizzard said. The reason why may be explained by the next part of the study.
After the participants read all 15 narratives, they rated each story for enjoyment (“This story would be a good time, fun, entertaining”) and appreciation (“This story would be meaningful, moving, thought-provoking”).
Participants thought stories in which the bad guys were over-punished would be the most enjoyable and those in which the bad guys were forgiven would be the least enjoyable to watch. Equitable punishment was in the middle.
But they also said they would appreciate the stories about forgiveness more than the other two types of narratives.
They found that readers took less time to respond to stories with equitable retribution than it did for them to respond to stories with under- or over-retribution.
So the participants may have paused slightly before responding to the forgiveness stories to reflect, because they saw them as more meaningful, Grizzard said.
But while they also paused for the over-punishment narratives, they did not find them more meaningful, only more enjoyable, he said.
That suggests the pause may have been simply to savor the extra punishment the villain received.
“It appears to be the darker side of just enjoying the vengeance,” he said.
Overall, the results suggest that a fair and just retribution is the “intuitive moral standard” that comes to us easily and naturally, according to Grizzard.
“But seeing a lack of punishment requires a level of deliberation that doesn’t come to us naturally. We can appreciate it, even if it doesn’t seem particularly enjoyable.”
Co-authors on the study were C. Joseph Francemone of Ohio State; Kaitlin Fitzgerald, Changhyun Ahn, Jess Walton and Cass McAllister from the University at Buffalo; Jialing Huang from Texas A&M University; and Robert Joel Lewis of Culture by Numbers, LLC, in Austin, Texas.
“Men are only clever at shifting blame from their own shoulders to those of others.”
-Titus Livius (59 BC–17 AD)
Titus Livius (“Livy”), a Roman historian, discussed blame shifting in the distant past, suggesting that even though people disapprove of it , this method of avoiding others’ censure is nothing new.
Today, we continue to live in a culture where people remain motivated to avoid appearing blameworthy and quickly point their fingers at anyone but themselves when something goes wrong.
Although a substantial body of scholarly work has explored the nature of blame, as well as the cognitive and affective mechanisms that underlie people’s desire to blame and punish others for their actions (e.g., [2–9]), we know little about how exposure to blame-shifting agents impacts subsequent judgments, such as for other social targets.
This is a worthwhile question to explore because blame shifting appears to be something social agents – particularly those in the public eye and concerned with their public image – engage in frequently when they publicly fail.
For those who observe others’ attempts to shy away from blame, this may have unforeseen consequences, such as promoting a cynical expectation that other people will act in the same way, which can have consequences for how these others are socially evaluated.
The present research explores this, investigating how exposure to leaders who shift blame for their own failures influences subsequent expectations that other agents will do the same.
Failure and blame shifting
Because perceived weakness has the potential to ruin careers and reputations, it comes as no surprise that individuals seek to defend and bolster their self-images (e.g., [10, 11]) and monitor their public appearance in social settings .
In part, people are reluctant to admit they have failed because of a general desire to avoid negative social evaluation and disapproval from others (e.g., ).
Thus, to save face when things go wrong, people will sometimes shift blame away from themselves by bringing attention to external causes , attempting to obscure their role in causing misfortune.
This tendency may be especially true for individuals in the public eye (e.g., corporate leaders, politicians), as their failures are likely to be noticed by others and can cause repercussions such as loss of status, rank, or even employment [15, 16].
In the only paper to our knowledge examining downstream consequences from observing blame shifting, Fast and Tiedens  proposed a “blame contagion” hypothesis – the propensity for those who see others shifting blame to subsequently shift blame for their own failures. Specifically, the authors found that after exposure to a target who blamed someone else for a failure (versus accepting responsibility for it), perceivers were more likely to shift blame for their own personal failings.
Several putative explanations for this effect were examined, such as mood and social learning, both of which were ruled out as causes of blame contagion. Another possibility that was examined regarded whether shifts in perceived acceptability of blaming might underlie the observed effect.
However, regardless of experimental condition, participants rated blaming others for a failure as socially inappropriate. Although this explanation also failed to account for blame contagion, the finding highlights how blame shifting can negatively impact social evaluation, which is relevant to the present research.
That is, if perceivers expect other, unrelated agents to shift blame for their failures after seeing another person shifting blame, this could taint their evaluation of these agents before they have even had a chance to respond.
Moreover, even if a second agent does not shift blame, the expectation that they will could bias perceivers toward interpreting any explanation for a failure – even an acknowledgement of responsibility – as an attempt to deflect blame, resulting in negative evaluations of the agent.
Ultimately, Fast and Tiedens  showed that participants were more likely to develop a self-image protection goal after reading an article featuring an agent who blames others rather than taking responsibility, an idea that was supported by the elimination of the blame contagion effect when participants self-affirmed in an unrelated task before writing about a personal failure.
This finding is intriguing but raises further questions. For example, if perceivers agree blame-shifting is socially undesirable, why then are they more likely to engage in this undesirable behavior themselves after seeing someone else do it?
One possible answer provided the somewhat simple yet straightforward theoretical basis for the current work: although blame-shifting is seen as “wrong,” seeing someone do it also serves as a potent reminder that it can be employed as a successful strategy to avoid others’ disapproval, leading to unknowing use of the strategy in response to threat.
Taking this one step further, observing blame-shifting (i.e., relative to taking responsibility) might make salient the idea that when someone is threatened, they will adopt this strategy because of its utility.
This might then cause perceivers to interpret ambiguous information about a subsequently presented social target through a lens that is consistent with the adoption of a self-protection goal. In other words, seeing someone shifting blame might create an expectation that others will do the same.
Behavioral expectancies and expectancy violations
Humans are evolutionarily hardwired to try and predict what others will or will not do (e.g., ).
Perhaps because of this, people are surprisingly confident in the accuracy of their snap judgments, believing that their initial assumptions about how others will behave are correct .
However, judgments about others are often erroneous and based on heuristics that can backfire(e.g., ).
This is particularly true when limited information is available for making judgments – a common state of affairs in social perception. Under uncertainty, people can only use those informational cues that are available  and often fall back on stereotypes as a way of easing the difficulty associated with decision-making .
In the context of judging how people will respond to failure, if stereotypes are available, they should serve as the basis for predicting behavioral responses.
For example, if one thinks of CEOs as typically greedy, dishonest, and self-serving , then without further information, one might expect a CEO to shift blame for their own failures, rather than accepting responsibility.
This should be particularly true when information about another person shifting blame has been recently presented and is therefore readily accessible in memory , and when the target being evaluated appears to belong to the same category as a previously evaluated target .
However, what might happen when an initially-presented target confounds rather than confirms stereotypes, violating expectations for behavior?
Expectancy violation theory (EVT) , which describes how individuals respond to events that counter expectations and social norms in interpersonal contexts, might provide one clue. According to EVT, unexpected information receives more cognitive processing than expected information .
For example, behavior that is inconsistent with target-based expectancies  or stereotypes is often recalled better than consistent behavior.
In line with this framework, we originally hypothesized that expectancy-inconsistent behavior from an initially-presented target (i.e., who takes responsibility for a failure) would lead participants to question the accuracy of their stereotype (i.e., that CEOs will blame others for their failures), leading them to expect a subsequently presented target to also accept responsibility.
On the other hand, when presented with a target whose behavior is consistent with an available stereotype, we expected that perceivers would assume a second target would do the same.
Thus, compared with exposure to a person who defies expectations and takes responsibility, we expected that exposure to a blame-shifting target would cause perceivers to expect a new agent to do the same.
Ultimately, this is not what we found. The results of our first experiment, conducted with these expectations in mind, surprised us but also guided the development of a new hypothesis that we tested in two additional experiments: Blame-shifting may be so expected that any behavior serving to disconfirm it can lead to its greater expectation.
Although people anticipate that others will act in predictable ways, they also must be responsive to the presence of unexpected information that might demand the execution of a nonstereotyped behavioral response .
However, exposure to unexpected, stereotype-inconsistent behavior can also increase stereotype accessibility, leading to an expectation that others will behave more predictably.
This might especially be the case when information about how a subsequently-presented target will respond is lacking or ambiguous, as it should force people to rely on available stereotypes (e.g., ).
This might be particularly likely when perceivers have strong expectations about how an agent will behave.
Thus, when a target behaves stereotypically and normatively (i.e., for that group), people should not be particularly surprised, and they should continue to expect other similar targets to behave predictably, particularly when the behavior under consideration is in the same domain.
On the other hand, when a target acts in a way that is surprisingly counter-stereotypical, people might expect a second target to behave more predictably. This suggests that the relationship between whether a first target confirms or violates a stereotype about blame shifting and judgments that a second target will shift blame could differ as a function of (i.e., interact with) the extent to which the first target’s behavior seems surprising.
Although we did not begin this work with this hypothesis in mind, it is consistent with other theoretical frameworks.
For example, because people expect that others will act in ways that are consistent with available stereotypes, and these stereotypes are difficult to overcome, people who violate expectations – particularly in an extreme way – are treated as deviant exceptions to more general rules, allowing stereotypes to be maintained [30, 31].
In addition, because of the uncertainty that comes with expectancy violations , disconfirmation of stereotypes can evoke surprise [30, 33], perhaps resulting in an attempt to more accurately predict the behavior of a subsequently-presented target .
When little information is available to aid in this prediction, however, reliance on stereotypes may lead to the greatest accuracy , even if this means relying on the very stereotype that was recently violated.
Research on blame has received substantial attention, providing a wealth of insight into when, how, and why people blame (e.g., [2–9]). Yet, despite knowing a lot about how blame “works” in forming social and moral evaluations (e.g., [2, 4, 6–9]), we know almost nothing about whether observing people casting blame has consequences, suggesting that research on the topic is sorely needed.
Of course, in many cases blame is warranted and is used instrumentally to highlight and socially punish actual wrongdoing ; in these cases, observing blame may not be particularly consequential, aside from directing people’s attention toward a person who is responsible for causing harm and explaining why harm occurred.
However, in other cases blame is used as a tool to unconscionably deflect criticism away from the self and avoid censure. Although this strategy may be understandable because people have a strong desire to avoid being judged negatively by others , if the present work and work by others [1, 36] is any guide, the strategy can backfire. People don’t like it when others shift blame for their own failings.
Nevertheless, certain types of people in the public eye—such as business leaders and politicians—may habitually shift blame because taking responsibility could mean the loss of their livelihood.
For example, CEO’s who acknowledge their accountability for failure might be fired from their high-paying positions , and politicians who fail to uphold campaign promises might lose their next elections .
The present research, building on past work , used this as a starting point. If certain sorts of people publicly shift blame for their failures, what types of consequences might that have for observers?
Specifically, we wanted to test whether observing others shifting blame would not only make observers more likely to shift blame , but whether it would make observers more likely to expect others to do the same.
What we found did not directly support this hypothesis. Instead, the evidence we found in three experiments is consistent with a different hypothesis: People expect corporate leaders and politicians to shift blame so much that surprising them with evidence to the contrary only makes them expect it more.
When particularly surprised, blame shifting is particularly expected. On the other hand, when unsurprised at others’ behavior, people simply expect more of the same. In sum, even though people don’t believe it is appropriate to shift blame  and don’t really like people who do (Experiments 2 and 4), they nevertheless expect some people to behave in this way (Experiments 3a and 3b), and it seems to be difficult to get people to believe otherwise.
Of course, this work is not without limitations, the most obvious being that what we found is opposite from what we originally predicted.
Yet, our confidence is increased by the replication of the effect to a different second agent who is dissimilar from the first (with the exception that both were high-status agents), and a second replication using a new set of targets, with a very similar pattern of means across all experiments.
Another limitation directly related to the first is that our revised hypothesis was necessarily grounded in theory that was developed after the fact.
That is, rather than presenting our findings as having been theoretically derived and fully anticipated, we presented the course of this work as transparently as possible, taking care to replicate the finding before attempting to disseminate it. Because of how this work progressed, we acknowledge that further theory development might be needed.
Yet, we also believe that the simple case we have laid out – that surprise at a violated expectancy for one sort of behavior can lead to greater expectation of that same behavior for a similar target responding to a similar situation – may not be that far off the mark, and that future research might help to bolster some of the claims that were made.
The present work also raises a number of interesting questions that might be fruitfully investigated in future research.
For example, were the responsibility-taking agents in the present research in fact subtyped as deviants in order to maintain stereotypes about how powerful people will respond to failure, and if so, might the effects we found here generalize to other groups where strong stereotypes exist?
Will the effect generalize beyond blame shifting to expectations that agents will take credit for themselves and be stingy with praise for others who have helped them achieve their successes?
Are expectations for blame-shifting so high that short of full acceptance of responsibility for a failure, people will believe agents are shifting blame even when they are not?
Also, because expectations for blame-shifting are high for people from some groups, do people assume that when these agents take responsibility for failures, they are pragmatically trying to gain moral credentials and inspire trust in order to continue on in their high-status positions (i.e., is taking responsibility seen as an impression-management strategy rather than a morally praiseworthy behavior)?
The current findings suggest that these questions might represent other promising areas for further research.
Ultimately, this work is only an initial foray into an aspect of blame that has not received much attention: How does exposure to people who blame others (or not) for their own misdeeds affect perceivers’ judgments of other social targets?
Given the frequency with which people do blame others, the effects of observing this type of behavior on subsequent judgments seems worthy of consideration.
Perhaps more important, it raises other intriguing questions about how people think about blame and the extent to which people use blame shifting as a means of self-preservation.
Ohio State University